SPRING CLEANING

adult learning, arkansas, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, Faith, greek myths, Holy Spirit, Painting, poverty, purpose, Secrets, vision, Work

Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.

When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”

Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.

Kettle and Frying Pan

For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.

I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.

Happy Pan by Gail

Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.

Sturdy kitchenware by Mike

This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.

What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.

Turner: Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”

I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”

Cornelia’s Orange and Blue Kitchen

In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.

Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:

“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin.

Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.

Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.

The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin. Photo: © Roger-Viollet/Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

Mountains and Molehills

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, Faith, Fear, Imagination, Love, Ministry, Painting, purpose, renewal, Right Brain, righteousness, seashells, shadows, United Methodist Church, vision

I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.

The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.

In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment,
and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

~~ 1 John 4:18

When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.

Lines of a Landscape

Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.

In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.

We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.

Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.

Mike Still Life

Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.

Erma Still Life

Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.

Tatiana Still Life

I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.

Glenn Still Life

Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.

Gail Still Life

Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.

Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.

Cornelia Still Life

I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.

“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
~~ Mark 14:28

https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/12/02/248089436/the-truth-about-the-left-brain-right-brain-relationship

Cloud Illusions and Creativity

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, change, Creativity, Faith, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, Ministry, Painting, Philosophy, Valentine’s Day, vision

I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Two evenly matched teams kept the score tight until the last quarter, when an interception by Kansas City put the game into the hands of Patrick Mahomes. This young quarterback proceeded to shred the 49ers with 21 unanswered points for a comeback win. If San Francisco came away feeling shell shocked, they had every reason for their disbelief. They were ahead by 10 points going into the last quarter and KC hadn’t won a Super Bowl in 50 years.

When I was in art school, the most difficult task was learning how to see the world in a new way. Our art history classes tried to prepare us for this undertaking by teaching us the changing styles of beauty across the ages. Some of us never got it, however, as we persisted in thinking the ancient works were just “ugly and deformed” or the modern works were “lacking in realism or talent.” We students weren’t asked to have preformed ideas already, but to learn new ways of looking at the world and the ways of representing it.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Apples

When I went to seminary twenty years later, I hit the same wall in philosophy class. We were studying the ancient Greek philosophers, who each defined reality in a different way. I was confused for a moment, until I realized the great artists across history all sought a different form of beauty. When I explained this to my classmates, the “aha moment” also came alive for them. In our world, we often think a word means one thing and one thing only, but this isn’t so.

As Joni Mitchell says in “Both Sides Now,”

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It’s cloud illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds at all.

We’re only looking at the clouds or illusions of what we think is beauty or reality, for we don’t know reality at all. A painting could be a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space or form, or it might be colors and shapes floating on a flat surface, meant only to evoke emotions in the viewer. Some paintings are sculptural in form, so they straddle the boundary between dimensions.

The challenge for beginning art students is to look beyond what we know and what we think we know. This also a challenge we have in our everyday lives. Do we keep repeating the same recipes because we KNOW how to make them and we KNOW our people enjoy them? Do we want to get “healthy,” but we want to keep eating the same food and keep our same lifestyle, even though these are the very things which have made us unhealthy? When our health care provider asks, “What is one small change you can make this week?” Will we answer, “eat cheese with only one meal per day instead of three?” This is a small change; next week we can add another one.

Artists also keep repeating forms and styles, sometimes because they love their subject matter and other times because they feel secure doing this. How can we stretch our creative minds and build our mastery beyond our current plateau? We do this because we’re human, and human beings like short cuts, and the easy way out. If it were really easy, everyone would be doing it. We can all do it, but only one in a million may earn a living from it. The rest of us are glad if we earn our art supplies from our work. Everyone can enjoy the benefits of the creative life, however.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Cheeses

This past week our class looked at two Mondrian paintings of the same subject: a ginger jar still life. In the earlier work, his attention to detail, the planes on which the apples rested, and the background are treated realistically. We know these are objects from his household and his kitchen. The later painting has the ginger jar, plus some food items, perhaps cheeses, but Mondrian has broken up the whole surface of the painting with intersecting lines, which touch the edges of the objects on the table. The painting as a whole is more important than the individual objects. We don’t ask which is “better,” for each one is a good example of the style of painting the artist was pursuing. Later Mondrian would leave the objective world all together and paint right angle lines in red, yellow, blue, black, and white.

Shrine of the Madonna

Erma brought a photo of a fine mosaic shrine she made. I suggested she try working with that as her inspiration. Translating from a flat photo to a flat painted surface seems as if some of the problems would be solved, but colors and shapes which work in 3D don’t always work in a painting. These are things we learn by doing. There aren’t any mistakes in art, only opportunities to make changes for the better. If we artists had to do things perfectly, none of us would ever get out of bed, for one look at our bed heads would send us back to our comfortable cribs and we’d be pulling the cozy comforters over that mess. Our muffled voices would call out for coffee, but we’d only poke our heads out long enough to grab the proffered cup and back into hiding we’d go.

Hearts in Space

Mike had valentine’s day on his mind, since he plans on goose hunting on the holiday. I think I see the image of the sun in the background. NASA recently released some high-quality photos of the boiling surface of the sun. Mike has an affinity for the bodies in space. We bemoaned the loss of Pluto as a planet, it having been relegated to the category of “dwarf planet,” by @plutokiller, aka Mike Brown, of California Institute of Technology. We also talked about pointillism, the technique of using dots of paint to make an image and to mix the color in the eye.

Landscape Through a Window

Gail chose to do the landscape seen through the fellowship hall window. The background has the parking lot stripes, the tree, and the asphalt. The light stripes in the foreground are the vertical window shades. It’s unfinished, as are all the other class room works. It’s hard to get even a small work done in an hour and a half, but we get a start on it. I don’t get mine finished either. It’s a small landscape of the green spaces in Hot Springs, for an exhibition I have in the springtime.

Autumn Landscape

I have works, which I live with for a certain time, to see if they stand up to my eye. If they pass muster, I let them loose upon the world. If not, I destroy them by cutting them up, reweaving them, and painting a new work on the recycled canvas. Sometimes I’m painting when I’m sick or distracted, so I’m not in the best of sorts. When I’m feeling fine, I have a flow. Of course, since one can’t plan for the flow to happen on a certain day or time, going ahead and painting is the surest way to catch it in the act!

Eventually, however, all art is never finished, but only abandoned, for whatever we have learned on this work is enough, and now we go onto the future with the knowledge we’ve gained. The new work we initiate is full of all our past successes and failures, and it contains the promises of the future breakthroughs. We always work in hope, for while we breathe, we always hope. If we come to the blank canvas full of hope and believing in the promises of the future, we are then open vessels for the holy spirit to fill and quicken. Then we can paint or make what ever beautiful work god moves our hand to create.

Under Construction 

art, Creativity, Fear, Health, Imagination, Ministry, ministry, Painting, purpose, purpose, Reflection, renewal, Retirement, salvation, shame, Spirituality, Strength, Uncategorized, vision, vision, Work

  
I walk on Thursday evenings in the historic downtown district of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Most of our buildings are from our salad days of the Victorian period and early 20th century. We are building new construction, such as this new Regions Bank Tower, which will replace the one directly behind my back. I often leave my car under this overpass while I huff and hustle my way up to the cold spring at the entry to the mountain route to the observation tower. From there I walk past historic hotels, small and large, until I get to the site of the old Majestic Hotel, which burned to the ground in 2014. If I turn around for the start again, I can put in nearly 2 miles on a good evening. Even if I’m the last to finish, I’m still faster than the ones who never started. 

Our creative and spiritual lives are like my walking discipline in my downtown, which is both dying and being renewed. I notice some shops have closed, but new ones have taken their place. These aren’t all tourist shops, but some are tradesmen serving the needs of downtown dwellers. Each of us needs to take care of our long term needs, not just our whim wants. 

For our spirit, paying attention to our relationship with God through silence, contemplative study of scripture, and service with the poor will help ground our identity in God rather than in our own self. In our creative work, keeping the disciplines of our trade can be important. By this I mean, remembering to draw, to use color, value, to work a series, or to explore a subject fully. If we write, we pay attention to the skills of this craft, or if we are musicians, we never neglect our scales or any other skill sharpener in our toolbox. 

Sometimes we get to the place in our lives when everything burns down to the ground. Like the storied Majestic Hotel, once a home to professional baseball players during spring training and mobsters down for the gambling, our life as it is won’t stand up to the elements or to the vissitudes of fate. A stray cigarette or a frayed wire takes the whole building down, along with all its memories and its derbis inside. 

Sometimes we too have to start from scratch by making a fresh start. Yes, saving a historic treasure would be nice, but sometimes not very cost effective because the structure isn’t sound. Then it’s best to turn our back on that old life, grieve for it, and find a new hope and a new vision for the future. “If only we had done something with it 30 years ago!” Yet the will wasn’t there, was it? We can’t turn back the hands of time. 

In 1992, I answered God’s call to ministry. I spent twenty-two years away from my original calling, art. When my health took me out of parish ministry, I took up painting again in 2009. Five years in my studio relearning color, value, shape, composition, and emotion has felt like burning down a great old edifice and building a new one in its place. To date I’ve stayed close to the subject, except for the color. Lately I’ve felt constrained by those boundaries, and I’ve moved to s freer brushstroke. Will it stick? I’m enjoying it, but I feel emotionally exhausted afterward. I’m tearing down a boundary and am about to climb over a barricade. I’m excited about this adventure, even if it tastes of danger.